The Diceyan Trope

Metaphors, labels, and particular phrases seem to be a constant theme running through Canadian law. In virtually every area of public law, the Supreme Court deploys clever labels and metaphors to convey ideas that are bundled with certain inferences or assumptions about the ideas themselves. The most famous, perhaps, is the living tree model of constitutional interpretation, which is so ingrained that it has taken academic articles to dislodge its place in the constitutional zeitgeist. Other examples abound.

On one hand, these linguistic devices are useful shorthand. Rather than explaining complex concepts, they allow the Court and others to quickly express a complicated idea in a way that lawyers and academics can understand. On the other hand, they shortcircuit critical analysis of the ideas they represent. Rather than acting as useful stand-ins for complex ideas, I fear that they have become broadside representations of certain way of viewing Canadian law; concepts that, through frequent usage, have become immovable stones that represent closely-held positions.

Perhaps this is most evident with one of the most widely-deployed tropes: the attack on one of the dark lords of administrative law, A.V. Dicey.

I confess that the inspiration for this post was Justice Abella’s recent speech in New Zealand, in which she, as usual, attacked the “Diceyan” conception of administrative law. Lest one should think this is an isolated incident, this Diceyan label also infected the Vavilov and Bell/NFL hearings at the Supreme Court, when one intervener argued that other Commonwealth jurisdictions have gotten by without a standard of review analysis, and a judge retorted that this is because they are trapped in a Diceyan mode of law. As Audrey Macklin explains respecting this exchange, “[The] insinuation behind this remark is that these benighted commonwealth judges are trapped in some nineteenth century intellectual dungeon.”

I fear that this insinuation is the one meant by Justice Abella. Bundled within the Diceyan attack is a number of presuppositions. As far as I can tell, the attack on Diceyanism is an arrow in the quiver of those judges and scholars who were inculcated in the New Deal and Keynesian era of technocracy, expertise, and social policy.  Often called administrative law “functionalists,” (people like John Willis and Harry Arthurs) the functionalists worried about Diceyan administrative law as a way to fill-in conservative ideals under the rule of law rubric. To their minds, cases like CUPE [1978] best recognize the social policy aims of tribunals and their technocratic expertise.

I’ve written before about why these arguments are ill-fitted to the modern administrative state.  Administrative decision-makers now no longer operate in a narrow field of social policy, but also inhabit the most repressive areas of the state: prisons and border officers, for example. Technocratic expertise is one thing, but legal expertise is quite another, and decision-makers are now tasked more than ever with deciding complex legal problems for which they are not necessarily trained. Put differently, there is no reason to believe that an expert in subject-matter A will necessarily have expertise in legal area B. Nor is there any reason to believe that the expert will be able to explain her conclusions in language that permits accountability through judicial review–this is the problem of immunization to which the Federal Court of Appeal is increasingly drawing attention.  The assumptions underlying the functionalist view, if they ever existed, no longer exist as a general matter.

In fact, there is much about Dicey to be admired. The first consideration, though, is determining what Dicey actually meant. While functionalists try to paint Diceyan as a rank anti-administrativist, there is some nuance to his position. Dicey was comparing with a particular style of administrative law—“droit administratif”—which Dicey thought was alien to English legal principles. Particularly, he believed that a separate body of law governed relationships between citizens and the state, as opposed to citizens and other citizens. State actors were not subject to scrutiny by the ordinary courts, but rather special administrative courts. The concern for Dicey wasn’t the exercise of delegated power—he actually allowed for the exercise of legislative powers by delegated actors in the English context, entities like municipal bodies. Instead, it was the worry that different rules might privilege state actors. This concern still worries us today.

But administrative law as we now know it is not about granting rights and privileges to state actors (putting aside ideas of qualified immunity). State actors are subject to the ordinary jurisdiction of the courts. The only doctrine that dilutes this oversight is self-imposed: doctrines of deference that courts created themselves to grant delegated actors “policy space.” No matter, while administrative law as we know it arose subsequent to Dicey, Dicey is probably not as radical as his opponents make him out to be.

What’s more, Dicey’s fundamental principles remain relevant today. His explanation of the rule of law contained within it the seeds of a more substantive approach, one of “legality” underlying all exercises of public power. This is still a useful and important concept, particularly as we consider how best to control discretion exercised by administrative actors. There is nothing in Dicey’s principle of legality that implies a necessarily conservative orientation. All it insists is that courts have an important, perhaps exclusive, role to play in policing the boundaries of the administrative state.  And unless we are willing to attack the independence of judges by insinuating that their policy preferences infect their judicial duty, maybe we should not be so worried about courts like the functionalists were.

More broadly, Dicey did attempt to wrestle with the distinction between parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of law, as I outline here. This is a concept that continues to bedevil us today in discussions about standard of review, and the extent to which Parliament’s law should oust the ability of the courts to review decisions on a de novo basis. As Mark Walters aptly noted in his contribution to the Dunsmuir Decade symposium:

Dicey made some mistakes and the punishment for his sins seems to be that his name is forever associated with that flawed “Diceyan” understanding of public law. However, some of the most difficult and underappreciated passages in his famous book, Law of the Constitution, come in the course of an attempt to explain how judges may resolve the tension between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty—passages which make little sense unless we assume that the “spirit of legality” that he says shapes all legal meaning is a substantive ideal that justifies and legitimates the exercise of governmental powers

This Diceyan concept—identified by Walters—is still centrally important today. But it has been forgotten, in part due to the negative inference drawn by those who label particular proposals as “Diceyan.”

This is not to say that these arguments are altogether immune from attack. For example, it is controversial to say that courts should have an exclusive role to play in the rule of law. In the modern era, a focus on courts also tends to crowd out discussion about the best controls on administrative discretion that exist: those imposed by Parliament itself.  I also think that Diceyanism can be used to justify an all-out, Phillip Hamburger-style attack on the existence of the administrative state writ large. For some, this is a good thing. But for others, there may be reason to think Diceyanism is open to abuse.

My point here is not to say that Dicey was right or wrong–clearly, like most humans, he was a bit of both. Either way, to my mind, it is not a foregone conclusion that Diceyan administrative law is a wholly improper theory of the administrative state. Like most theories, Diceyan administrative law contains important principles that should animate future research directions, but it is not a cure-all. Invoking the Diceyan trope does little to further intelligent debate about what administrative law should look like in the 21st century.

Theorizing Administrative Law

Does Dunsmuir Have a Philosophy?

Mark Walters, McGill University

Canadian judges occasionally pause to reflect upon larger theoretical ideas that are normally only implicit in the reasons that they give. Dunsmuir was one of those occasions. Writing together for the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada, Justices Michel Bastarache and Louis LeBel prefaced their analysis of the issues in the case with a general statement about the constitutional foundations of judicial review in administrative law. Re-reading those passages today, they strike me as having a distinctively Diceyan tone. The two principles that Bastarache and LeBel JJ. identify at the foundation of judicial review, the rule of law and legislative supremacy, are the same principles that Dicey identified as the animating principles of constitutional law, and the responsibility that they ascribe to judges for resolving the “underlying tension” between the rule of law and legislative sovereignty tracks Dicey’s views of ordinary courts and administrative power closely (Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, [2008] 1 S.C.R. 190, 2008 SCC 9, para. 27). In reading these passages I could not help imagining someone—Harry Arthurs came to mind—declaring that the Dunsmuir judgment began its life “with the dead hand of Dicey lying frozen on its neck” (my imaginary Arthurs would of course be borrowing this famous line from William Robson, “The Report of the Committee on Ministers’ Powers” (1932) 3:3 Political Quarterly 346, 351).

The paragraphs on theory in Dunsmuir contrast sharply with another judicial excursus on administrative law theory that is perhaps somewhat forgotten today. I have in mind Justice Bertha Wilson’s discussion of the rule of law in National Corn Growers Assn. v. Canada (Import Tribunal), [1990] 2 S.C.R. 1324. At that time, Wilson J. had been worried that recent waving of the rule-of-law banner by some of her judicial colleagues signalled a weakening in their resolve to honour the spirit of the 1979 CUPE decision and its deferential approach to administrative decisions (Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 963 v. New Brunswick Liquor Corp., [1979] 2 S.C.R. 227). The story of administrative law in the common law tradition had been, she said, a tale of escape from Dicey and his dreaded followers (especially the dark lord, Lord Hewart) who employed the conceptual formalism of the rule of law and the associated idea of jurisdiction against administrative discretion to advance conservative ideas contrary to the modern welfare state. Wilson J. feared the return of rule-of-law conceptualism and expressed her preference for the “pragmatic and functional” approach to administrative powers which had begun to emerge in Canadian cases a few years before.

As it happened, the language of “pragmatic and functional” would reign supreme in Canada for some twenty years, defining the essence of administrative law for a generation of lawyers and law students. And then, just as quickly as it entered judicial discourse, it was gone. Its demise brings us back to Dunsmuir, for of course it was here that “pragmatic and functional” was unceremoniously dropped, its “name” deemed by Bastarache and LeBel JJ. as “unimportant” (para. 63).

But was there something more at stake than just a name? Comparing the theoretical excursuses from National Corn Growers and Dunsmuir helps us to see the outlines of the philosophical debates that lie just under the surface of judicial reasons in administrative law. The pragmatic and functional approach seemed to draw inspiration from what Martin Loughlin has called the “functionalist style in public law”, an eclectic approach to law that emerged amongst the first wave of anti-Diceyans in the 1930s combining faith in the transformative potential of the state with an instrumentalist and realist understanding of law that was deeply suspicious of the common law and its conceptual paraphernalia, especially the rule of law (see e.g., John Willis, “Three Approaches to Administrative Law: The Judicial, The Conceptual, and the Functional” (1935) 1 U.T.L.J. 53). Functionalists wanted to clear away the old common law clutter that obstructed social policy experts and technocrats in government who were building a new and better society. As Ivor Jennings put it: “The “rule of law” is a rule of action for Whigs and may be ignored by others” (W. Ivor Jennings, The Law and the Constitution (1933), 256).

Perhaps, then, the rejection of “pragmatic and functional” in Dunsmuir was the rejection of a set of ideas and not just a name. There is arguably some evidence in Dunsmuir of a return to the sort of positivist or formalist understanding of law often associated with Dicey. The rule of law means, according to Bastarache and LeBel JJ., that public power is authorized by law, and the judicial review of statutory power involves simply defining the boundaries of jurisdiction by reference to the intent of the authorizing lawmaker (paras. 28, 29). As a rule about the formal statutory authorization for power the rule of law is thus simply and disappointingly rule by law. Many scholars think that Dicey’s rule of law was formalist and positivist in this very sense (e.g. Paul Craig, ‘Formal and Substantive Conceptions of the Rule of Law: An Analytical Framework’ [1997] Public Law 467). The worry of Wilson and Arthurs (and the old functionalists too) is that a formalist rule of law is an empty and aimless rule waiting to be filled with judicial bias.

But if this theory of legality informs Dunsmuir, why would Bastarache and LeBel JJ. say that there is a “tension” between the rule of law and legislative sovereignty? If rule of law means legal authorization by legislation, there could never be tension between the two. And why would they describe the judicial job of upholding the rule of law as upholding not just “law” but “legality”, “reasonableness”, and “fairness” in administrative decision-making (para. 28)? Why would they say that defining the “jurisdiction” of a decision-maker involves a “standard of review analysis”, which was their new name for the old “pragmatic and functional” analysis (para. 29)? And, finally, why would they cite with approval the case of Baker v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), [1999] 2 S.C.R. 817, in which Justice Claire L’Heureux‑Dubé stated that administrative discretion must always be exercised in accordance with the boundaries imposed by statute and by the principles of the rule of law and the fundamental values of Canadian society?

The answer to these questions lies, I think, in appreciating the false dichotomy between formalism and functionalism. Dunsmuir and the many cases preceding and following it are best understood as part of an on-going interpretive project that seeks to fold together in a coherent way substantive values of legality within the complex arrangements for governance that have been created to address the realties of the modern (and post-modern) state. Formalism and functionalism both suffer from the mistaken view that law is merely a command issued by a lawmaker to others, a linear communication from state to subject; the two schools of thought differ only in terms of how judges should respond to the domains of administrative discretion created by these commands. My own view, however, is that law is better understood as a more circular discourse in which rules emanating from legislatures and administrators are interpreted in ways that can be justified in light of a unified and coherent vision of normative order that honours deeper values of political morality, including, of course, the value of legality and its unrelenting insistence that respecting equal human dignity means rejecting arbitrary power.

In the end, I think it is fair to say that the Dunsmuir theoretical excursus is Diceyan—but not in the formalist Diceyan image constructed by the functionalists. Dicey made some mistakes and the punishment for his sins seems to be that his name is forever associated with that flawed ‘Diceyan’ understanding of public law. However, some of the most difficult and underappreciated passages in his famous book, Law of the Constitution, come in the course of an attempt to explain how judges may resolve the tension between the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty—passages which make little sense unless we assume that the “spirit of legality” that he says shapes all legal meaning is a substantive ideal that justifies and legitimates the exercise of governmental powers (A.V. Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, 8th ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1915), ch. 13). Because Dicey himself did not develop a theory of administrative discretion beyond these basic points, he cannot give us concrete answers on how administrative law, properly interpreted, should look today. However, if we step back from the details of Dunsmuir and think about the general approach taken by Bastarache and LeBel JJ., we can detect a classic interpretive effort to see how the formal and substantive values of legality and sovereignty may be reconciled in a principled and coherent yet also a pragmatic and functional way consistent with a ‘Diceyan’ spirit of legality. One could say that this is just ordinary legal reasoning. Perhaps. But because it is ordinary it is also the best kind of legal reasoning. If all that resulted from Dunsmuir was a deeper commitment to an administrative world in which the exercise of power must meet standards of “justification, transparency and intelligibility” to be lawful, then the decision should be counted as a great success.

Real Intellectual Life

I have recently come across a great paper by Mark D. Walters, “Dicey on Writing the Law of the Constitution”, (2012) 32 OJLS 21.  (UPDATE: The original link is no longer working, alas, and the paper is no longer freely accessible.) It’s not brand new (it was published last year), but as prof. Walters, unfortunately, doesn’t post his work on SSRN, it might have escaped the attention of fellow constitutional law nerds and Rule of Law enthusiasts, as it escaped mine. The article tries to provide put A.V. Dicey’s work, especially his classic  Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, in the intellectual context of its author’s “real intellectual life,” a glimpse of which prof. Walters got by studying Dicey’s papers, letters, and draft manuscripts.

Dicey’s work has been touted as the epitome of Victorian jurisprudence ― of all that was good or all that was bad about it. But, says prof. Walters, it has more often than not been seriously misrepresented. It is not, as is often believed, an academic codification of British constitutional law; Dicey’s aims for his project were at once less and more ambitious than that. Nor is it an example of dry, authoritarian Austinian positivism; Dicey’s jurisprudential views were more complex than those of his contemporaries.

According to prof. Walters, Dicey aimed not at presenting a detailed codification of an commentary on the entire constitutional law of the United Kingdom, but rather at presenting its most salient principles. He was “an artist” rather than a surveyor, in the words of a contemporary who, for his part produced a detailed (and, so far as I know, now entirely forgotten) survey of constitutional law. Nevertheless, it was ― unusually for a time which had seen the constitution examined from the standpoints of politics and history but not law ― a thoroughly legal work. But, for Dicey, a study of law could profitably look at principles, the “spirit” of a body of law, and not only the details of its rules.

Indeed, Dicey’s jurisprudential views and methodology are, according to prof. Walters, much misunderstood. Though he regarded himself as a lawyer rather than a historian or a political critic, his approach to law was not limited to looking at the rules of his own time and place. He sought to enrich his and his readers’ understanding of the law by taking at times a comparative approach, and sometimes by considering history. Furthermore, his account of law was not that of a neutral and dispassionate observer. Dicey thought that the law had a normative value, and gave a normative account of it. Indeed, prof. Walters suggests, albeit tentatively, that if we had to assign to Dicey the label of one of today’s jurisprudential schools, he would be a Dworkinian interpretivist rather than a positivist.

A final important point that prof. Walters makes concerns Dicey’s approach to legal scholarship as literature. “[T]here ought,” Dicey wrote, “to be no divorce between law and letters.” An academic lawyer should write not only, and indeed not mainly, for other academic lawyers, but for other educated citizens who happen to take an interest in the law. His work should be accessible and readable; not merely readable, indeed, but aesthetically enjoyable as well as instructive.

Although prof. Walters does not say this, I think that this last point too allows us to draw a parallel between Dicey and the late Ronald Dworkin. He too sought to reach out to audiences beyond the confines of legal academia (notably through his New York Review of Books columns); he too, I think, aspired to write in a way that would be appealing and compelling to a lay public. Whether he succeeded is probably debatable, but one need not like the result to think the attempt noble. In this, if in nothing else, I think that legal scholars ought to learn from Dicey ― and from Dworkin. (This blog, I daresay, has the same ambitions. Whether it succeeds is, of course, for you to judge, and I hope that the literary standards by which you do so are not too lofty.)

Dicey has been both an idol and a bogeyman for constitutionalists and legal philosophers; for some, such as yours truly, he has been both. Prof. Walters succeeds, I think, in making him a bit less of the latter, and more of the former. More importantly, it shows that neither of these labels is quite warranted. Dicey, as any great scholar, had a rich intellectual life, which ensures that he defies such easy categorization. And our own intellectual lives will be richer for paying attention to his.